Ibram X. Kendi Writes Personal Essay on Elijah Cummings' Death and Life Expectancy InequalityHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, health, Elijah Cummings
Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University
I had a 30-minute ride to the train station. I nestled into my seat, opened my phone, and saw that Representative Elijah Cummings had passed away.
I gasped and covered my mouth. The driver peeked at me in his rear-view mirror. He saw me shaking my head and whispering what many Americans whispered last Thursday: He was only 68.
My mind turned to my father, whom I had just left at a hotel in Princeton, New Jersey. Dread burned in my chest. To get my mind off my father’s mortality, I started reading obituaries for Cummings, who will lie in state today at the U.S. Capitol. The more I learned about the gentleman who would not yield, the more my chest burned for his family, for my family—for all the black families worrying about the mortality of their loved ones, for the black families burying their loved ones this week in caskets made from tears of they had so much more to give.
My father, God willing, will turn 72 in May, which is the average life span for black men in the United States. Black men have the nation’s lowest life expectancy, four years less than white men, seven years less than black women, nine years less than white women. It was no aberration for Cummings to die at 68 after a series of health problems. It was no hyperbole when, 25 years ago, a Brooklyn rapper nicknamed the Notorious B.I.G. titled his debut studio album Ready to Die. It is also no accident that black women are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women. Despite the mortality gap narrowing in recent decades, black life remains unexpected.
On the other hand, there may be no more consequential white privilege than life itself. The privilege of being on the living end of racism. The privilege of a political response when death from drug overdoses comes in bunches.
White privileges are the relative advantages racism affords to people identified as white, whether white people recognize them or deny them. To be white is to be afforded one’s individuality. Afforded the presumption of innocence. Afforded the assumption of intelligence. Afforded empathy when crying or raging. Afforded disproportionate amounts of policy-making power. Afforded opportunity from a white network. Afforded wealth-building homes and resource-rich schools. Afforded the ability to vote quickly and easily.
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